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New method discovered for detecting depression in teenagers

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Saliva test to detect cortisol levels can determine which teen boys are more likely to develop clinical depression.

A National Institute of Mental Health survey reports that some 11.2 percent of American teenagers ages 13 to 18 have been severely depressed. For teenage boys, however, researchers have discovered the first biomarker for predicting their chances of developing clinical depression.

By testing a teenage boy’s saliva for cortisol levels, the researchers found that those with high levels of the stress hormone were 14 times more at risk for suffering depression than boys who did not have high cortisol amounts.

Study leader Professor Ian Goodyer, with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said that the discovery could be beneficial in helping to reduce the number of teenage boys suffering from depression through early detection.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved collecting saliva samples from several hundred male and female teenagers, which the researchers then used to measure cortisol levels. In addition, the teenagers were asked to report if they suffered any symptoms of depression.

After measuring cortisol levels and assessing the teenagers’ self-reported symptoms of depression, the research team classified the teens into one of four different groups, and then followed them for a period of one to three years.

As a result, the researchers had enough information to predict which group had the greatest chance of developing clinical depression, including other psychiatric conditions.

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Teenage boys, in particular, who had increased amounts of cortisol in their saliva and reported having depressive symptoms were 14 times more at risk for developing clinical depression than boys with low levels of the hormone without any self-reported depressive symptoms.

As for the teenage girls in the study, those who reported depressive symptoms and had high levels of cortisol were only 4 times more at risk for suffering clinical depression, compared with those who reported no symptoms of depression with low cortisol levels.

The researchers said that these results show how gender differences may play a role in the development of clinical depression. They also said their recent discovery that high cortisol levels are linked to depressive symptoms could help health care professionals detect which boys are at a greater risk for depression – and therefore treat them more effectively early on.

The team said that they’re also hopeful their discovery will open the door to a new and better public education campaigns that help overcome the stigma associated with depression and other mental health disorders among teenage boys.

From a strategic standpoint, Prof. Goodyer said that focusing on intervention methods that target teenagers could help prevent the risk of developing more severe depressive episodes later on, which could create even more serious consequences during adulthood.

The co-author of the study, Dr. Matthew Owens of the University of Cambridge, explained that their discovery could also provide a more custom-tailored approach to treating teen boys with depression, especially given the increased rate of suicide among teenage boys and young men.

Indeed, male teenagers are more likely to commit suicide than their female counterparts, with 81 percent of the deaths from suicide occurring in teenage boys between the ages of 10 and 24 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Elevated morning cortisol is a stratified population-level biomarker for major depression in boys only with high depressive symptoms; published ahead of print February 18, 2014.
2. University of Cambridge, News Release: Biomarker for depression could improve diagnosis and treatment; published February 17, 2014.
3. National Institute of Mental Health, Major Depressive Disorder in Children